Growing up in the 1980’s, the threat of nuclear war was often at the back of my mind. Films like Peter Jackson’s ‘The War Game‘ laid out the stark facts – nuclear weapons could never be used and indeed needed to be got rid of if the planet was to have a better than even chance of seeing in the next century as anything other than an irradiated wasteland. The BBC docudrama ‘Threads’, broadcast in 1984, made the same point – just more bluntly. Even after a visit to Greenham Common with Essex CND led to my leaving the anti-nuclear movement I still felt the same about the weapons themselves – what was the point in having them if they could never be used? It wasn’t until university that I learned about the one of the points in history when they very nearly had been – the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.
Fifty years ago today the world was a couple of bad decisions away from a nuclear conflict that would have killed at least 300 million people. One of the American destroyers manning the Cuba blockade was the USS Beale. The story goes that on 26 October 1962 the Beale had been trying to get the attention of a Soviet Foxtrot class submarine that had been shadowing the blockade ships. At one point they actually started dropping small signalling depth charges….
Unknown to the crew of the Beale the Foxtrot had been submerged far longer than it should have been and was virtually out of air. Feeling that they were under attack, the sub’s exhausted captain Valentin Savitsky ordered his boat’s 15 kiloton nuclear torpedo made ready to fire. Also present on the boat was his deputy brigade commander Vasili Arkhipov. We’re not sure if Arkhipov persuaded Captain Savitsky that he really didn’t want to start World War Three, or if Savitsky himself had a fortunate attack of sanity. What is certain is that the torpedo was disarmed and an almost certain American nuclear response averted.
So tonight I’m raising a glass to both these men.За твоё здоровье! (as they say in Russian)